I can be intolerable when it comes to booking flights. We'll indulge on club level now and then (for the right price), and we'll add some days to our trip when we can afford the time off, but I really, really hate paying more than $200 for a round-trip flight. That means we fly a lot of low-cost airlines. Flying low-cost effectively is no simple endeavor, but we've got five tips to help keep your experience smooth.
1. Book an Early Flight
If you're flying on a low-cost carrier (LCC), you have to be prepared for delays and cancellations. LCCs try to make everything work with fewer resources than other airlines would: fewer planes, fewer crews, fewer gates. All these things mean that if something goes wrong (as it frequently will with air travel) delays and cancellations will be more frequent.
To deal with this, book an early flight or a flight you'd be comfortable missing (or having a significant delay). Early flights give airlines all night to sort out any problems related to planes or crews, and they give you a lot of options. If you're on the last flight out of the airport and it gets cancelled, you're probably staying in the airport tonight. If you're on the first flight, you'll probably have plenty of options.
2. Check In Online
The lines to check in for low-cost airlines are always worse than other lines. Why? First, they're filled with lots of inexperienced travelers. Second, everyone is angry when they get to the front of the line and have to pay for something. That should be reason enough to avoid waiting to check in at the airport. But there are five other reasons this is crucial.
First, some airlines (Spirit) charge to print your boarding pass at the airport. Second, many airlines (like Spirit) escalate fees for bags as you get closer to the gate, so you'll pay less for baggage if you note it an online check-in than if you checked in at the airport. Third, for airlines that assign seats at check-in, you'll have a better chance of keeping your party together the earlier you check in. Fourth, every time you interact with a human is a chance for them to figure out how to charge you for something. And fifth, if something is wrong with your reservation, you want to know ASAP. I'm sure Spirit customer service is nothing to write home about, but I'd much rather talk to them for an hour the day before my flight than talk to someone at a desk before security 30 minutes before my flight.
3. Get Personal: Forget the Checked Bag and the Carry-On
I understand not everyone can "pack light," but if you can't, then you need to look very carefully at the fares and fees you'd be paying on low-cost vs. legacy airlines. In many cases, the price advantage of the low-cost airlines is entirely offset by the cost of baggage. For larger families, only paying for one checked bag or one carry-on could be worth it. But if you're flying as a couple, or solo, your savings could be wiped away by the luggage fees. Check out the below chart. Those are sample fees (they vary by booking) for a domestic flight. They're also for EACH WAY. So, unless you're in Spirit's "$9 Fare Club" you'll pay at least $70 round-trip for each carry-on.
Luckily, if you pack light enough, you'll avoid even the carry-on fee. All airlines that I'm aware of allow a free "personal item." The theory behind this item is that it is a purse or laptop bag. The practice behind it, though, is that it can be used as your luggage for your entire trip. You'll need to visit your airline's website for their exact dimensions and find a good backpack that fits them. We also use the KonMari method of folding. If you're really squeezed for space, remember to wear your thicker items and maybe take any books, laptops out of the bag as your approach the gate.
4. Buy a drink and snack after security
This one is elementary, but if the airline is going to charge you for drinks (Spirit charges for water) and snacks, you'll be better off buying something after you've gone through airport security. You can also bring food (but not beverages) through security.
5. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare to get [un]comfortable
Whoever said "It's not about the destination, its about the journey," wasn't flying low-cost. The best way to handle a flight on a low-cost airline is to be prepared to distract yourself for the length of your flight. Your tray table (and your neighbor's tray table) is going to be tiny, which means coming and going from your seat while you've got beverages out can be difficult. Your seat probably won't recline, and it won't be very comfortable. If you're flying to MCO, the flight is going to filled with screaming children.
Flying can be a real experience. It can be absolutely marvelous. Even just being in an Airbus A320 for 3 hours can be a special experience. But besides the miracle of flight, there is nothing marvelous about flying low-cost. You have to have a plan to grin and bear it. I suggest bringing work (although, tiny tray tables limit your laptop space), a movie on the iPad (low-cost carriers won't have TVs in the seats), or a book.